San Francisco A judge said he may order a recall of as many as 2 million Ford Motor Co. vehicles over concerns that they are prone to stalling, and accused the company of deceiving federal safety investigators and consumers.
Ford denied the allegations.
The Alameda County Superior Court judge's preliminary decision was issued late Tuesday in a lawsuit filed in 1996 on behalf of 3.5 million current and former California owners of Ford vehicles in model years 1983-95. They claim the vehicles stall because an ignition device was mounted in the wrong place.
"I think it's a huge victory. The judge studied this information for five years now," plaintiff's attorney Jeffrey Fazio said Wednesday.
It's a new blow for the automaker, which is involved in this month's recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires, which were standard equipment on some Ford trucks and sports utility vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating 62 deaths that may be linked to the tires.
Ford denies any ignition defects and said no injuries have resulted from the alleged faulty devices. Company spokeswoman Susan Krusel said the automaker would ask Judge Michael Ballachey to reverse his preliminary decision at a Sept. 28 hearing in Oakland.
No other judge has ever ordered a vehicle recall, but Ballachey has said that the law gives him the power to do just that.
If the judge makes the order final, Ford believes it would be overturned on appeal, Krusel said.
The suit challenges Ford's placement of the thick film ignition (TFI) module, which regulates electric current to the spark plugs. In 300 models sold between 1983 and 1995, the module was mounted on the distributor near the engine block, where it was exposed to high temperatures.
Plaintiffs lawyers have said Ford was warned by an engineer that high temperatures would cause the device to fail and stall the engine, confirmed the problem in internal studies, and could have moved the module to a cooler spot for an extra $4 per vehicle.
Consumer advocates estimated that a recall would cost Ford $70 million to $250 million, The New York Times reported Wednesday.
Ford shares were down 37.5 cents to $26.125 in trading Wednesday on the New York Stock Exchange.
Ballachey's preliminary order harshly criticized how Ford dealt with the federal safety agency and agreed with the plaintiffs that the company withheld information.
"Ford's strategy, clearly established by the credible evidence, was: 'If you don't ask the right question, we don't have to answer with what common sense tells us you want to know,"' Ballachey wrote.